Amii aims to diversify Alberta's AI talent pool


A free program at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) is teaching women and gender-diverse individuals about artificial intelligence and how to build a network within the province's technology ecosystem.

The Kickstart Program, which is running for the second year, is meant to diversify the pool of entry-level AI talent by providing exposure to companies, awareness of crucial technical knowledge, and access to mentors working in STEM-related organizations.

"Reducing bias and improving fairness in AI systems are benefits generated from more robust diversity in the field. So we want to continue investing in that area," said Warren Johnston, who manages Amii's talent team.

The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report for 2021 found that 32% of those who work in data and AI were women, a slight decrease from 2018. Amii itself does not yet have gender parity among its researchers.

Sacha Davis took part in the first iteration of the program, which began in early 2020. At that time it was called AlbertaWomen.ai and offered mentorship to female students to connect them with opportunities, companies, and industries specializing in AI and technology across Alberta.

During their undergraduate degree in biological sciences at the University of Alberta, Davis took a few courses in computing science, which was the catalyst for their interest in artificial intelligence and technology.

"I was really excited to learn more about what the field generally had to offer. As someone who felt a bit out of place to start off with, given that my background was not in computer science, I found it to be a phenomenal opportunity to make new connections, learn a bit more about the industry, and generally just situate myself in the field," they told Taproot.

One of the most important elements of the program was being able to learn alongside a cohort that Davis "was immediately comfortable with." They had attended various tech events in the past but often felt intimidated.

"It's hard not to think about, 'If I ask a dumb question, are 30% of the people in this room going to assume it's because I'm a female?' Those anxieties do creep in there. So to access those spaces and be welcomed with open arms within a group that you know you're not going to be judged by, that was the most important part for me," Davis said.

Portrait of Sacha Davis

Sacha Davis went through a previous iteration of the Kickstart program in 2020, when it was called AlbertaWomen.ai. (Supplied)

Meeting role models was also critical, as Davis hadn't had a single female professor in their computing science courses at that point.

Davis's connection with Amii through the course helped them land a machine learning internship there last summer, and their master's thesis evolved out of one of the projects they worked on as an intern. Their computing science thesis focuses on genomic data from Canadian crops, using machine learning methods to help with gene expression prediction.

"I need that background knowledge in biology, but I can also use my newer acquired skills in AI to drive my project forward," they said.

The eight-week Kickstart Program begins on June 14 with a welcome meeting and chat with Davis about their experience. "We're creating this long-term broad network of people that we want to see contribute to the program as a presenter or a mentor that incoming cohorts can connect with ... to tackle this problem around under-representation," Johnston explained.

Future sessions include a presentation about the foundations of machine learning from Stephanie Husby, who is on Amii's training team, and a panel that will cover what careers in AI can look like with Atefeh Shahroudneja (ML scientist at Amii), Dornoosh Zonoobi (CEO and founder at Medo.ai), Jessica Udo (product manager at Microsoft), and Elise Usunier (head of corporate sales at Samdesk). Kickstart will wrap up with a look at the future of AI and AI careers on Aug. 9.

Applications are open until May 31.